Wolves were once federally protected but now can be hunted again, making the fate and future of the wolf more controversial than ever. UK journalist Jim Wickens reports from Wyoming and Montana to provide his unique insight into the wolf wars of the West. His blog accompanies the exclusive Earth Focus report, Shades of Gray: Living with Wolves, now online!
I had forgotten that the snowy bend we were approaching was, in fact, a sheet of black ice. Jet lag, long hours, and perhaps an innate anglo tendency to drive on the left, all played in the factors that led me to overlook this. What followed was a slow-motion skid -- I turned the wheel right, but our car had other ideas, sliding gracefully off the road and into a meter-deep ditch, clanging with the fencing as we hit. Cameraman Brian of course, as with all camera operators the world over, was more worried about his gear than any physical damage his own body might have sustained in a car crash. Instead of a warm shower and a hot dinner back in Helena, we were now face down at a 45 degree angle, in a ditch, in the dark, half way up a snowy mountain. It was going to be a long night.
Earlier that day we had met with a remarkable young rancher called Garl.
Welcomed onto his ranch, we spent the afternoon with him plodding around a snowy field full of jet-black Angus cattle. As with many ranching operations in the Rockies, Garl rents huge swathes of upland pasture from the government, paying a peppercorn rent in order to let his cattle graze out the summer in the high plains and woods, before coming back down in the fall and being shipped off to feedlots. Several years ago though, Garl began to notice his counts were dropping and he suspected wolves were to blame.
But for Garl, wolf losses are part of a much bigger problem: what he sees as a predatory dominance of the packing industry by a small handful of companies who effectively dictate market access and cattle prices across Montana. It is a corporate grip that has squeezed his family's livelihood for generations. Garl began to think outside the box, changing the ranch into grassland beef operation and in recent years building a slaughter and processing plant on the farm. The family get more money from their value-added beef processing plant and the animals get an enormously better deal too living out their lives on grass, instead of the brutal journeys south to feedlot CAFOs that so many cattle in this state take every fall.
But what does this mean for wolves? Situated 30 miles as the crow flies -- or rather as the wolf runs -- from Yellowstone, Garl knows that wolves aren't going to disappear anytime soon, so he has begun to develop an upland farming system that he thinks is better both for the wildlife and also for his cattle numbers. He now rotates the animals, keeping them in smaller areas at a time rather than simply turfing them out for months. The result this summer has been a marked decrease in unexplained stock deaths and it's not hard to see why, he says. The ranch hands can now keep an eye on the cattle better, and the herd itself has begun to behave as more of a pack, operating together to ward off predators in a markedly different way than they did when they were dispersed and isolated.
The system Garl is innovating promotes locally produced grass-fed meat, prevents over-grazing in the uplands and effectively allows for large carnivores to better co-exist alongside his animals. It's early days but the results so far seem to suggest that the fortunes of his livestock, of the wolves and indeed of his family pocket book, may all be turning around for the better.
Hours later, in the dark, in the ditch, and waiting for the pick-up truck to pull our damaged car back onto the road, I reflect upon what we have witnessed. A Rocky-mountain rancher who clearly recognizes that the impact of wolves on his livestock operation is but a small and diversionary part of a much wider and more profoundly urgent discussion regarding the economic disempowerment of livestock producers within the US by corporate agribusiness.
Garl is an insightful and compelling voice on this issue, but not one that the mainstream media would normally give space to, drowned out amidst the bombastic rhetoric that surrounds wolves on both sides. It is a hysteria that in my mind seems to be precluding a wider discussion about agriculture today: a debate where the predatory feeding habits of corporate agri-giants on family farms in America, finally get as much attention as that of the Yellowstone wolves.
Jim Wickens is one of Britain's leading investigative journalists and the co-founder of both the Ecologist Film Unit and also Ecostorm, the environmental media agency. Jim has spend the last decade documenting unreported issues around the world, including exposing illicit whale-meat smuggling networks in Japan, filming the brutal Namibian seal hunt, documenting soya-related murders and poisoning in Argentina, breaking the story of fracking problems in the US, and filming illegal trawlers far out to sea on the Burmese border.